BFTP: We knew it was bad for you, see!?!

Part of this month’s Blast from the Past reposting program: originally published January 4, 2006. This post notes the ongoing pattern of research around abortion being distorted and misrepresented.

A sample of the headlines:

Don’t you just love the way the MSM so baldly states its beat-up of the day? Of course the study isn’t the slam-dunk they present it as. Here are the key findings of the study, led by psychologist and epidemiologist David Fergusson at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, published this week in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology:

  • Researchers found 41 per cent of the more than 500 women in the study had become pregnant by age 25 with 90 pregnancies terminated.
  • At age 25, 42 per cent of those who had an abortion had experienced major depression at some stage during the previous four years – nearly double the rate of those who had never been pregnant.
  • The risk of anxiety disorders was also raised by a similar degree.
  • Women who also had at least one abortion were twice as likely to drink alcohol at dangerous levels and three times as likely to be dependent on illicit drugs.

The team seems to have been epidemiologically sound enough in their comparisons, and as a pro-choice atheist Fergusson is clearly disturbed by the political implications of the trends his team discovered. The team compared the abortion group to women of their cohort who had never been pregnant, and those who had continued their pregnancies. The trends do appear to hold, although I see no indication that there was any comparison with women who had continued with unplanned pregnancies, a distinction I would think crucial.

But do these trends necessarily show that it is the decision to have an abortion that causes mental illness and/or substance abuse in later life? After all, although the sample size of the study as a whole is reasonable (1265 New Zealanders, male and female, tracked from birth) the sample size of women who’ve had an abortion is only 90.

Now, already some sensible folks have written about the limitations of the study, mostly dealing with the screamingly obvious fallacy of correlation implying causation (which can be used to demonstrate that giving women the vote led to two world wars, just as you always suspected). A woman who knows she has a personal and/or familial history of mental depression may make an informed choice not to be a mentally ill parent, so she may have an abortion and later suffer an depressive episode. That does not mean that the abortion led to her depression.

To move away from data to anecdote:

As an example of depressive illness influencing parenting decisions, I had severe PND with both my kids. Having also coped with a long ongoing case of chronic depression in my early 20s, I decided that I wouldn’t be having any more children, as having a mum with continuing episodes of depression I felt would be less than ideal for the two kids I had already, let alone any future sprogs. We went the route of a vasectomy for my husband, so abortion never entered the picture for me.

But if I had required an abortion (if, say, my husband’s vasectomy hadn’t worked), I don’t see how a simple study like Fergusson et al could differentiate between someone prone to depression making a responsible decision about parenting capacity and later having a not unprecedented depressive episode, and someone with no known history of depressive tendencies having an abortion and later having a depressive episode.

Another key point about familial depression, until my own first episode, I didn’t know my family had a history of depressive illnesses because nobody ever talked to us kids about it. Then I got to hear about Cousin X, and Great-Aunt Y, and Uncle Z and all their doolally forebears in the family tree.

So a young woman ignorant of her predisposition to familial mental illness may well be more vulnerable to exactly the impulsive behaviours that make unplanned pregnancies more likely, as well as being predisposed to depressive episodes later in life. Same-same for abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs.

Back to the data: The causative link explaining the trend found by Fergusson et al may well be more to do with the not unreasonable supposition that women prone to varying degrees of mental instability are more likely to have an unplanned pregancy, and therefore are more likely to have an abortion than their more neurotypical peers. This is however merely an hypothesis to be tested: the answer could be something else entirely. We simply don’t have enough data examined thoroughly enough yet to know.

Fergusson et al is a valuable study that doesn’t deserve to have its other findings buried in the avalanche of noise the abortion controversy is going to pile upon it. But it is not complete, and the epidemiologists don’t claim that it is. They have found an intriguing trend that cries out for further investigation. Let’s hope that they get the funding to continue their studies and further inform the debate on reproductive choice.

UPDATE: more on this at Pandagon and Capitalism Bad: Tree Pretty

Categories: culture wars, media, medicine

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Okay, to me the obvious possibility is that women in stressful life situations, with limited control (eg abusive relationships) are both more likely to find themselves with unwanted pregnancies and mental health problems.
    So while I agree that it’s at least as likely that mental health issues lead to abortions as that abortions lead to mental health issues, I’d assume that in many cases a third factor causes both. In fact, while I’m another pro-choice atheist, I’m not at all disturbed by the research results because they’re entirely what I’d expect from my understanding of the world.

  2. For the forced-birthers to get any mileage out of this with people of a little clue, they’re going to need to commission a independent, unbiased study comparing people who’ve had an abortion with a truly random sample of people who’ve relinquished for adoption and/or had their babies stolen or coerced away.
    But that’s not going to happen any time soon, because I don’t for a minute think that forced-birth organisation don’t know exactly what adoption can do to the parent who birthed.

  3. Another complication to such studies is that if you’ve got multitudes of anti-choice dipshits telling you how you’re such a horrible person for getting an abortion, that could certainly lead to one feeling rather depressed.

  4. These interpretations of studies infuriate me. Even if abortion cam lead to increased anxiety or other mental health issues for some women, it hardly follows that continuing the pregnancy and either adopting or keeping the child would be better.
    I think there could be some link between abortion and hormonally-related mental illness (pregnancy can cause changes in brain chemistry, as pre- and post-partum depression show) but the humane solution would be to provide psychological support to vulnerable women who wish to abort, rather than force them to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
    Because really? The potential mental health effects of abortion are nothing compared to the potential effects of either unwanted parenthood or adoption.

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